Thursday, September 03, 2009

Happy Hooligan (Forever Nuts)
by Frederick Burr Opper

Happy Hooligan is a bum, literally, a hobo out to make his way in the world and failing miserably. He means well, he really does, but invariably his attempts at doing well for others backfire on him, landing him in hot water with the cop who exists seemingly for the sole purpose of collaring Happy. It's a remarkably simple and yet quite solid template for situation comedy. Eventually the formula changed, new characters were introduced outside the world of Happy, his brothers and the cop who pursued them. But the same essential logic remained, even when Happy toured the world and got married. Happy was, in a word, hapless.

For all that the early strip artists focused on the poor immigrants flooding the streets of New York in the late 19th and early 20th century, there wasn't always the empathy that Opper displays towards Happy. Looking at some of Outcault's earliest Hogan's Alley pages, its not hard to see the veiled disgust reflecting prevalent attitudes towards the urban poor. Look at this example, from 1896 (courtesy of Wikipedia), and notice how the slapstick violence seems less playful than merely chaotic. The crew of diverse racial stereotypes seem filthy - it brings to mind nothing so much as William Hogarth. And lest we forget, Beer Street and Gin Lane was not intended to create empathy for its subjects, but bring the full force of social approbation down upon the miserable proles in the grips of the Demon Gin.

But Happy, despite his misfortune, is nevertheless very charming. The strip's primary effect stems from the fact that the reader does empathize with Happy: when bad things happen to him (as they do with clockwork regularity) the reader laughs because they identify with the character on some level. Instead of an object Happy is a character, and his undying optimism and unflappable decency stand in such stark contrast to his circumstances that the juxtaposition is itself the source of humor. It's the same reason - the exact same reason - Charlie Brown can never quite kick that football. It's funny but it's also really, really sad. The confluence of those sensations, laughter and sympathy, creates a kind of collusion between the reader and the character. Just based on the sampling of strips presented in this collection, I like Happy - he's a simple fellow and his adventures can be quite repetitive, but better comic strips have been made with much less in the way of moving parts. (Krazy Kat, for one, with only three real characters and one gag spread over 31 years.)

Let's look at this strip, from early in the run. The first thing the reader sees is that the six panels are stationary: the reader has the same view of the landscape in every panel. Thus, when the characters move around in the strip, the illusion of motion is created - in one panel, a character is in one place, and in the next panel he has changed position. Because the strip progresses temporally in the time it takes the reader to scan the captions and "read" the pictures, the implicit assumption follows that the two panels occur consecutively in short order. This is the most basic form of sequential storytelling, but for Opper's slapstick it is the most effective. Because, as you might notice, there's a lot going on in these six panels. You've got four characters interacting on both the vertical and horizontal planes of the tableau - speaking up to the second story of a building, and moving to and from the background horizon line. Someone is moving in every panel, and the next panel illustrates whatever incremental movement has been made. Look at the visual symmetry of the cop traveling from the background to foreground on the top tier of panels, and the organ grinder walking out of the foreground and to the horizon line in the bottom tier.

Slapstick is physical comedy, and physical comedy is one of the hardest things to do well. Cinematic comparisons to comics are reductive, of course (the necessary disclaimer), but they fit well since Opper is replicating so much of the vocabulary of early silent film staging. In early film the camera was too heavy to be moved, so the action had to be staged for the benefit of a stationary observer. A premium was placed on visual legibility, in order for the elements of the narrative to be communicated as effectively as possible. Here, the stationary panels offer a view of a very brief melodrama, occurring in pretty much the time it takes the reader to scan the panels.

Comics, as with any artistic medium, is defined as much by its weaknesses as its strengths. Comics singular weakness in regards to communicating direct action is that it is a static medium - motion only exists as an illusion in the reader's mind. Figuring out that two pictures placed side by side will create an inference of connectivity in the mind of the viewer was one of the first steps in embracing, and eventually overcoming, this weakness, by turning the cartoonist's ability to manipulate the reader's understanding of time's passage into one of the most crucial parts of the cartoonists toolkit.

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